When you are lurking on as many gear forums that I am (it’s no wonder my sanity is often questioned) you start to notice patterns forming, you see the same questions come up, and quite often you get to see some great answers and also some terrible ones. I was explaining to Mrs Wilding a couple of weeks ago that at times it feels like I’m in a room with about 100,000 other people and I can hear all the conversations in the room at the same time… Sometimes, the conversations just pass you by but others stick out, especially when you hear the same conversation happening over and over again.

One of those topics that comes up time and time again is “boosts” – the different kinds and where to place them, even which one… so I’m going to write an answer at my level, which is idiot level, to try to explain it all. This may contain information you already know, but hopefully, it will contain some information that you haven’t consolidated yourself yet so there may be something useful in here for you!

When you boil it all down, there are (in my opinion), 3 kinds of boosts that guitarists favour. A clean boost, a treble boost and what’s often classed as a dirty boost, this could be called a coloured boost, or a tone shaping boost or a multitude of other names. The main consideration when deciding which is for you is what you fundamentally want it to do, and where you plan to put it in your chain. My own live rig runs two boosts, one pretty well up the front and one right at the back. Unsurprisingly, they are both Wampler – the Tumnus Mini sits at the front (after the compression and pre-gain modulations) before the main gain stages and the dB+ is right at the back (well, it sits before the reverb pedal but that is an always-on pedal so it doesn’t count!) and acts as a literal volume boost.

The thing that kinda makes me smile is when someone asks online “Recommend me a clean booster” and the thread instantly fills up with shouts of “EP Booster”, “Tumnus”, “TS” and the like and more often than not no one will stop to ascertain what they need, it may be that they need a dirtier boost or not. I would say that 99% of the time the dirtier version will be better, but you know….

Clean boost.
The clean boost does just that. It boosts the output of the signal coming in before it goes out. A lot of them are sold on the basis of a HUGE amount of boost, and for me, that kind of goes against the intention of them. Putting a clean boost in front of your gain stages will just increase the signal going in causing them to clip quicker, so you kind of get more of the same – where’s the fun in that? So, in my opinion, clean boosts are much better situated at the very back of your chain to ensure that when you go in for a solo, everyone can hear you over the rest of the band. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, a lot of people love their clean boost in front (especially if you are driving amp gain) because, well… they love their tone. So, happy days. But, once you start enjoying the beauties of a dirty boost it’s hard to ever go back to clean for pre-gain. In a nutshell, the classic clean boost will not add any clipping and it will NOT change the EQ of the signal, as EQ and clipping are so closely connected when you think about pedal dirt, it’s hard to separate them fully.

Treble Boost.
Kind of self-explanatory… takes the higher ranges of the tone and boosts it, this will in turn cause whatever sits behind it to clip into overdrive much quicker based on the frequencies that are hitting it.

‘Dirty’ Boost.
Now, this is where the real fun starts, well it does for me anyway. Thinking about it, I actually use 2 dirty boosts in my rig as I run the c2 side of the Paisley Drive Deluxe into c1 and only tend to use it for high gain stuff… So, why do I do this? Well, it’s all about the options it gives me with tone shaping, and how it makes my guitar feel under my hands. The amps I play with are set at totally clean at all times, so when it’s just the Tumnus that is on it kind of gives it a little nudge, adds very little gain (clipping) and the volume is set to unity. So, it’s not really pushing the amp in any direction, it just throws a gentle EQ curve across everything while giving it a little bite. It’s barely noticeable on the clean sound, but when it’s put on when the PaisleyDog is engaged, it fills it out SO much I can’t really describe it. Everything is warmer, fatter and it really pushes it forward. Not in a way that it makes my guitar sound louder, just fuller. When I then kick in Paisley Drive side (which is effectively set at full TS mode) the combined boosting of the TS frequencies and the K style frequencies produce a wall of sound that is huge. As I use a programmable looper in my rig, I have the following combinations available to me…

1) Clean, 2) Tumnus, 3) Paisley Dog, 4) Tumnus -> Paisley Dog, 5) Paisley Drive -> Paisley Dog 6) Tumnus -> Paisley Drive -> Paisley Dog.


Main Dirve section on the right (c1) with the TS boost on the left (c2)


My hidden boosts. dB+ for final solo boost and Tumnus Mini for pre, pre boost.

Now, the Paisley Drive is set somewhat different than the Tumnus, it’s set just above unity volume with a little more gain applied so when it hits the Paisley Dog side, there is an increase of overall gain as well.

With this in mind, how does all this work technically? The best way to think about dirty boosts is that it’s not about adding clipping to the chain, well, it is, but it’s more about the EQ shapes that they provide into your core signal. EQ is everything! As the Tumnus is a K style and the Paisley Drive is TS style (in one of the modes, and that’s the mode I use it in), I’m adding a largish amount of EQ to my tone when they are kicked in. The TS brings in a hump that centred at around 723hz and the Tumnus centred around 1k (these can and will change when you use the tone controls so that’s not gospel), the change in the character and depth of the main overdriven tone is quite remarkable. It does bring in a little clipping (gain), but you know, what it mostly brings is a jump in response from the EQ stacks, so I can easily control the feedback point and sustains for ever. When people look at the settings on my pedals they are quite surprised how low the gain is set on each, because when they are stacked, the inherent EQ shapes are bringing the gain that’s already there front and centre, with a much more 3D depth... that’s not how it works, but that’s how it feels. 

If you are thinking about a booster pedal, think about what you really need it to do and where you should place it in your chain. Are you after a literal boost for your solos or are you looking for something that changes your tone into something else. The vast majority of people want the latter I think, so the choice then is which voicing you want to bring in – most people instantly think about a TS or a K, but then again there treble boosters (that explode those higher frequencies that bring the character of the subsequent drives/gain stages to a whole new place), or pedals like EP booster that bring another element of width and fullness of its own character, I’ve seen a lot of boards that have an EP at the start and at the back, purely because the warmth it brings also sounds great as an end of chain boost as well.

As I’ve now been using the double boost pre-gain for quite some time now, I’m pretty certain I won’t change as it works so well, but, the older I get the more I start to think of downsizing, so who knows? Maybe we need to do a triple pedal that utilizes both kinds in a single box with one killer core gain stage at the end (I wish I was famous, I would totally have that as my signature pedal). With all this in mind… what is a clean boost in your mind – it is about clipping? Is it about volume? Should EQ play a part in this?

 

We’re all in this together, so when I address some of the scenarios in this blog, try keeping a tally as to how many you can identify with and share similar concepts or stories of your chase for tone in the comments.
 
The “perfect” tone is something I’ve chased my entire guitar-playing life. Early on when I first picked up the instrument, it was a combination of what I could afford (more like what I could beg my parents for and attempt to work off to “pay them” in labor to get) and try to emulate my heroes. I started playing guitar because of my love of Eric Clapton’s clean tone on the “Riding with the King” album he did with B.B. King, along with the tone I heard on the song “Wake Up” from the Matrix soundtrack (Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine). I loved the way they made their guitar seem as if it was conveying emotion, so much so I could almost feel those notes in my heart every time I listened. So, I convinced my parents to let me enroll in a guitar class my freshman year in high school, and they bought me an Ovation Applause acoustic-electric they found at a local shop for maybe two hundred bucks. It wasn’t glorious, but man did I cut my teeth (and my fingers) on it. It wasn’t about tone at that point; it was just learning and “writing songs” (3 barre chords and melodramatic teenage angst lyrics for days). Being that I loved Eric Clapton, my dream guitar at the time was a Strat. Mom and Dad found a Wine Red 2000 MIM Strat at the shop I was taking lessons at, and I drooled over it every single time we would walk in the shop. I was very fortunate to wake up Christmas morning and see that wine red strat and a small 10-watt Fender amp (can’t even remember what model). All I know is it was solid state and at the time had the dreamiest reverb I had ever heard. It was my “perfect” tone at 15.
 
Fast-forward about two years, and I’m in my first band. We were an alt-rock/pop-punk band that was aiming for an Incubus meets Sum 41 amalgamation. My music choices changed due to the environment I was in and the people I was surrounded with, so I migrated from wanting a classic strat clean tone to more dirt. It started off with a friend selling his Fender Stage 160 (because we wanted to be LOUD), and the start of my pedal addiction. I was working after school and all summer, so I saved up to buy a Danelectro Fabtone…. yea. I proceeded to crank the gain and wail. Little did I know that it sounded like a wall of angry bees swarming wherever we played (are the Fabtone and the Metal Zone distant cousins?). As I said before, Incubus and Mike Einziger were my new tone obsessions, so I stupidly sold off my MIM strat to fund an off-brand PRS copy that was at that local music store I mentioned. It was a fight to play, and it was more about looks than functionality and tone. I finally wised up a few months later, worked my tail off and sold off all of my excess gear and bought an American HSS strat  (sienna sunburst, maple board), and took my graduation money and working the summer after and got a Marshall AVT150. At the time, THAT was my perfect tone for what I was looking aiming to achieve. (Can you see a recurring theme here?)
 
In college, I was in another band that was into much heavier music, and once again my music tastes changed. All of my guitar heroes at the time were playing PRS’s, and the shop that was close to my apartment had a used Custom 22 with bird inlays in ruby red that I fell in love with. Admittedly I stretched myself way too thin and put it on layaway, sold the American Strat to a friend (who ended up putting stickers all over it and destroyed it), and got my PRS. The PRS and my AVT150 were my main setup for a few years, again...perfect tone at the time. My wife and I started dating “officially” when I was in college (though we dated in high school too, I was just too stupid to realize how amazing she was and broke it off to go move to the big city, etc.). She's always been into country music, which I loathed for some unknown reason. I grew up on listening to country music, but at the time it wasn’t in my wheelhouse, and I couldn’t stand it. Over the course of our dating my disdain for country music slowly melted away, and eventually, my mom told me about Brad Paisley, who was just about to release his Time Well Wasted album. That started me down another path…
 
Fast-forward to about a year later, and I’m borrowing my Dad’s Tele and Hot Rod Deluxe, and grabbed a Paisley Drive and that was the PERFECT TONE! I got heavily into Brad Paisley and discovered Brent Mason again now that I was older and able to appreciate his style, and all of the sudden the PRS and Marshall weren’t cutting it anymore. My graduation present (which has always been a major deal for our family) was a Crook Custom Telecaster. My dad was playing at the time as well, so we both ordered one (this is 2006, prices were a bit more lenient then). We took a road trip up to meet Bill and pick up our guitars, and to this day was one of my greatest memories getting to spend that time with him. I was working full time and traded in my Hot Rod Deluxe and PRS, and grabbed a Dr. Z RX Jr. It was a great clean platform, and it fit the bill NEARLY perfectly. I wanted the Brad Paisley tone, but with a personal touch. This was when I dove head first heavily into pedals, realizing they were a quick way of changing your overall sound at a relatively inexpensive price compared to an amp or guitar. I’ve gone through a few hundred pedals since then, slowly acquired some great amps, and still fervently chase the tone as much as I possibly can. In the end though, I still just sound like me now, and I accept that.
 
So, what is the whole point of this recurrent theme of finding the perfect tone? Essentially, finding the “perfect” tone is an evolutionary process, and it grows easier to understand as you gain more experience. In the beginning, you aim for what your heroes have, and what you can afford. As you gain knowledge of the instrument and tone, you realize that your tastes evolve as you do, and it molds into finding your sound, drawing from all the past experiences and creating a style that’s unique to you. We’ve all said the famous saying of “my board is done.” No, it isn’t, but it’s nice to think for a brief moment in time that satisfaction is obtained. Again, this might not apply to everyone, but I know quite a few that are right there with me. The chase for tone is a never-ending one because what’s perfect now might not be right for where you are later down the road. Embrace it and enjoy the chase!